Arlene Isaacs-Lowe, and Westina Matthews Shatteen

(WOMENSENEWS–When Susan Chapman’s mother died this past summer Leilani Brown, Nicole Lewis, Arlene Isaacs-Lowe and Lesia Bates Moss figured out ways to help, from consoling phone calls to bringing food to driving with her to the airport to being beside her at the funeral in Huntsville, Ala.

"I have a lot of friends but I couldn’t have gotten through the difficult process without them," says Chapman.

These women are not Chapman’s childhood friends. They are all women she met about five years ago through the Executive Leadership Council of Alexandria, Va., whose members include many of the most senior African American executives in Fortune 500 companies.

"The beauty of our relationship is not that it’s professional, but we are like family," says Chapman, who works for Citigroup’s Citi Realty Services as global head of operations and global project management.

Isaacs-Lowe, a senior vice president with Moody’s, the New York City-based credit rating agency, agrees. "I don’t have the kind of relationship with my mom that Susan did," she said during a telephone conference with the complete circle of friends. "But I’ve learned from Susan’s relationship, I appreciate what she and her mother had. I want to have a closer bond with my mother. I now try to call her a few times a week. I don’t want any regrets."

Except for Lewis, who lives in Detroit and is vice president and industry manager for Kelly Services, the Troy, Mich.-based provider of human resource services, they are all New Yorkers.

Chapman and Bates Moss, who has more than 20 years’ experience working for major financial service providers in credit analysis and risk management, live in the same apartment building in New York and often walk together in a nearby park.

Steady Hum of Contact

The five women–whose ages range from 37 to 49–meet all together about six times a year at Executive Leadership Council functions. In between they keep up a steady hum of phone calls and e-mails. "We’ll even hear from Susan when she’s some place strange like Budapest," says Lewis, referring to Chapman, whose work entails foreign travel about 40 percent of the time at her busiest.

Brown, who tends to cook up mass quantities of food in her off-hours from her work as a vice president at MetLife, the New York City-based insurance company, is used to Isaacs-Lowe popping by her Long Island home to see what’s in the pots.

"I was riding by her house one day and that hussy was having a barbecue and hadn’t invited me," Isaacs-Lowe recalls with a laugh. "I crashed the barbecue. It was for her cooking club."

A report released in October by Catalyst, the New York-based nonprofit that works to advance women in the workplace and business, illustrates why the bonds of friendship and humor that the five women describe can be so crucial to helping them survive professionally.

The report found that women of color in securities firms suffer exclusion from key workplace relationships and are often dissatisfied with such things as overall managerial interaction and support, distribution of clients and key accounts, access to influential mentors and access to business development opportunities.

Fostering Support Networks

In response to such adversities, Westina Matthews Shatteen, a managing director at Merrill Lynch and board member of the Executive Leadership Council, has focused on fostering the kind of support networks that Chapman and her friends have developed.

 Leilani Brown, left, and Susan Chapman

The past summer she chaired an event in New York for black women on Wall Street. It was the latest opportunity for the five women to come together.

Chapman and her friends talk about helping each other contend with the professional demands. Along with fashion consultation about which outfit to wear to which event, there are plenty of serious exchanges about the latest business practices or strategies for preventing an angry reaction on a bad day from becoming a career misstep.

"We don’t compete with each other," says Chapman. "When something good happens to one, we are all happy. If somebody can open a door, they will. We bounce things off each other. Lesia is going through a job search right now," she adds, referring to Bates Moss. "With the economy, a lot of positions are under stress, there is the potential for downsizing."

Rapping Through the E-Mail

Rap quizzes shared by e-mail–to see who is keeping up with the scene, who is getting old and stuffy–are one of the ways the group keeps itself knit together by sharing an amusement. The winner can collect a hefty sum of one buck.

But it all begins with helping each other out at work.

"I was having a bad day and as soon as I told Leilani what was going on she said, ‘Oh that’s whack, keep your head up,’" says Nicole Lewis. "She was on her way to a meeting but she kept texting me lyrics to songs. I needed that."

The Executive Leadership Council began a study of black women in corporate America in 2007, interviewing 76 black female executives, 18 CEOs of different races and 38 business peers. Completed in 2008 the study analyzed what contributes to African American women’s success and what impedes access to the "C-suite," such as chief executive officer or chief financial officer.

Ancella Livers, executive director of the council’s Institute for Leadership Development and Research, which conducted the study, said preliminary findings showed some CEOs thought black women didn’t have enough experience for the C-suite, didn’t take feedback well, weren’t coachable, didn’t like to listen and could have better relationships with senior white males.

"In some cases CEOs had broad experience with black women executives, some had no experience with them, or had a single experience that if it was good, great, but if it wasn’t, their view was colored by that single experience," said Livers.

Livers said the council’s findings suggest serious gaps in perception between CEOs and many black female executives, which she said suggests there is work to be done on all sides. "Are they demanding that we fit tightly in a narrow confine, asking us to leave a part of ourselves at the door? We have to be honest, ask ourselves, is what they say true of me? If so, what do I need to do to improve?"

She says as far as they know, there are no black female CEOs among the Fortune 500 firms. In 2005 Catalyst reported that African American women held just 1 percent of corporate officer positions.

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer in Long Beach, N.Y. She specializes in personal finance, small business and general business.